Richmond Football Club hiring a visibly Muslim woman of colour is them saying they are open for business to all
Back in late 2016 when I landed a job at Richmond in the Fan Development department I was so happy I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Having loved footy most of my life, and having long believed in the power of football to effect social change, I felt like I had finally arrived, in the promised land, the inner sanctum. I imagined rubbing shoulders with football players, having privileged access to games and club rooms after a win, and more importantly having a broader reach to access communities like my own, with the power and legitimacy that the Richmond name provides. When the time came to start at Punt Rd, I walked into the workplace nervous, of course, about starting a new job, a huge change from working as a primary school counsellor. Admittedly though I was mostly nervous about how my new colleagues at Richmond would receive me.
That first day I was introduced to the group, the people I would share my workspace, weekends and inevitable highs and lows of a footy season with. As I walked around, cubicle to cubicle trying to take in all the names (and nicknames), the big smiles and warm handshakes I received were a huge relief. Not one person withheld any sense of welcome. Not one person showed any reservation at my presence at the club. Phew. ‘It was over’ I thought. They all seem pretty nice. To be honest that should be expected, but as a woman of colour, wearing a hijab, you can’t always be sure of the welcome you’ll receive walking into any room frankly, let alone an AFL football club, a space traditionally owned by white males.
In all my angst about fitting in, and doing a good job in a new workplace I hadn’t really reflected on what a moment for a football club me walking through those yellow and black doors would be. In the little time I’ve spent at the football club, I’ve realised this isn’t just a big deal to me, but it is a big deal to the club too. I am the first hijab wearing woman to be hired at a football club. It took looking around on team photo day for me to realise this was important. Me being in the workplace has opened up conversations, and dialogue that I didn’t really expect but most certainly welcome. Initially, very tentatively staffers would ask me questions about my culture and religion. Ever present on their faces was that look of nervousness at the possibility they might offend me. My attitude to this has always been ‘don’t worry about offending me, ask away!’ Nothing will come of tiptoeing around each other.
Footballer Bachar Houli has done a lot of the heavy lifting, particularly with players, to push this club and the AFL’s understanding of multicultural communities and particularly Muslims. Because of this I walked into a club that far exceeded my expectations and whose respect for me as a woman, and a woman of colour has been overwhelming. What I’m finding now, is that me being me, and me sharing my life with the club has opened up conversation after conversation about our differences and similarities. Over lunch I’ve spoken with Georgina Cahill (Media and Communications Co-ordinator) about how relationships and marriage work in my faith. Across cubicles I have chatted with Todd Sigalas (Fan Development & Academy Co-ordinator) about Indian food and Ramadan. Even on a game day I chatted with Mitch Anderson (Commercial Partnerships Coordinator and Player Appearances) about Hijab vs Burqa vs Niqab.
What’s nice is that over time, while we still have those moments where we talk about a Muslim thing―We spend a lot more time talking footy, talking work, talking kids and weekends and food
What’s nice is that over time, while we still have those moments where we talk about a Muslim thing―How do you pray? What’s with Ramadan? What does your hair look like? We spend a lot more time talking footy, talking work, talking kids and weekends and food. When we do talk culture and faith, the conversation is more relaxed and less fraught with the fear of offending. I’m still different, and I always will be, but my difference is not a barrier to my work, to progressing at the club, to participating or making friends. The differences themselves are miniscule. On a Friday afternoon, I’m offered a soda instead of a beer, I wear a yellow hijab on game days, I participate (without putting down money) for the staff footy tipping and that’s all that my faith really affects in the workplace.
Outside the office, it’s a slightly different story. Still, if I wear my club polo at a training or on the street, it is assumed I am a supporter or at best a volunteer. Finding out I am an employee at Richmond Football Club usually brings a surprised smile. There are subtle prejudices that are yet to be challenged and overcome. I’m not really who comes to mind when you think ‘AFL’ or ‘Richmond’. Maybe that’ll change one day.
What the club doesn’t know is, when I first saw a sign placed on the door of the prayer room I was allocated for my daily prayers, I felt so accepted it made me well up. To provide a space was one thing, to clearly label it as a ‘Prayer Room’ was to say we accept this person and any person, any difference.
It may not seem like a big deal that I was hired to work at the club, and if the AFL landscape was different, and there were more women, let alone women of colour around, it wouldn’t mean anything. But if you think it means nothing you’re sorely mistaken. Richmond Football Club hiring a visibly Muslim woman of colour is them saying they are open for business to all. ALL. If you think the AFL arena is only for the ‘usual punters’ and the word ‘multicultural’ is only used to precede ‘Round’ then the Richmond Football Club is living up to their Strong and Bold moniker, and pushing back. I’m proof that we’re on the way.
The writer is Fan Development Officer at the Richmond Football Club